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American Citizen Services

Driving in Japan

Americans cannot drive in Japan with only a U.S. drivers license. Persons found driving in Japan without a legal license are subject to fines, arrest and possible deportation.

"International Driving Permits" are not a medium-to-long term substitute for a Japanese driver's license. You cannot obtain an International Driving Permit at the Embassy; see below.

You cannot renew your U.S. license at the Embassy.

International Driving Permits (IDP)

"Residents" are expected to convert or obtain a Japanese drivers license. Persons using an international drivers license who are resident in Japan can be subject to fines or arrest. The exact boundary between "resident" and "not resident" is unclear. In practice it seems to involve more than simply visa status or length of stay in Japan and is determined by the police.

We have heard from several Americans who were told by the police that using an International Driver's License for more than a year, or using one after exiting and then returning to Japan, or using one when you are residing in Japan, or after you have obtained an Alien Registration Card, or after 90 days in Japan, or using a license obtained by mail while you are in Japan, is illegal. In two instances, following accidents, Americans were charged with driving without a license, a serious offense. Driving without a license may also void your insurance coverage. 

Read what the Japanese Police have to say about International Driving Permits.

Obtaining an International Driving Permit

An international driving permit issued in the United States by the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) is required of short-term visitors who drive in Japan.

International driving permits (IDP) are not issued by the U.S. Embassy or by its consulates.

IDP's must be obtained prior to arriving in Japan. They cannot be obtained in Japan.

Note that IDP's are not intended to replace valid U.S. state licenses and should only be used as a supplement to a valid license. In other words, you must also have a valid U.S. state license in addition to an IDP to drive in Japan.

Follow these links to learn more about getting an IDP:

You can also contact both organizations off-line if you wish:

AAA (American Automobile Association)
1000 AAA Drive
Heathrow, FL 32745-5063

American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA)
1151 E. Hillsdale Blvd
Foster City, CA94404
Tel: 800-622-7070

International Driving Permit (IDP) Scams

You can obtain a valid IDP only from an automobile association authorized by the U.S. Department of State to issue IDPs. Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic (1949) authorizes the U.S. Department of State to empower certain organizations to issue IDPs to those who hold valid U.S. drivers licenses.

The Department has designated the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance as theonly authorized distributors of IDPs.

There are, however, many scams on the Internet charging significant fees for licenses and/or making false statements. Read what AAA and the Department of State say before you put down any money.

International Driving Permits should cost only US$10-20, though they are sold online for as much as US$300.

Follow these links to learn more about IDP Scams:

Why Do Americans Have to Take a Driving Test?

The Embassy spoke with the Superindendent of the License Division, Traffic Bureau, of the National Police Agency (NPA) to learn that prior to June 2002, Japanese law had allowed foreigners bearing international driver licenses to drive indefinitely in Japan.

As of June 2002, however, foreigners are only able to drive on an international driver license for up to 12 months, then have to have applied for and received a Japanese driver license. Long term foreign residents in Japan who attempt to avoid taking a driving test by continually renewing their international driver license abroad every 12 months will now be required to prove that they obtained the international permit at least three months before re-entering Japan. Tourists and others coming to Japan for short stays may drive with an international license obtained at any time before their arrival into the country.

The driver test consists of hearing, eyesight, written and practical/road test components. Citizens of 21 countries, not including the United States, are exempt from taking everything but the eye test. Some of these countries met the exemption requirement because the NPA examined their domestic traffic safety record and determined that it was at least as good as Japan's. Other nations exempt Japanese license holders from a driving test.

Canada received approval on February 1, 2003 after a lengthy (3-4 years) review. Canada had to submit responses to a lengthy questionnaire, regarding each of the country's 13 provinces and territories. In order for the U.S. to be exempt from the driver test requirement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must instruct the Japanese Embassy in Washington to contact each of the 50 states and provide them with a questionnaire. Once the 50 individual questionnaires are collected, they will be translated into Japanese and studied by the National Police Agency. In addition to individual state safety records and procedures for acquiring a license, the National Police Agency will be looking closely to see if each of the 50 individual states exempt holders of valid Japanese licenses from taking state road and written tests.

We shared with the NPA statistics which showed that the United States had a risk value much lower than that of Japan's with respect to fatalities as a share of vehicle kilometers traveled. We were told that the Japanese police still needed to see the safety records of each individual state. The Police are also concerned to see if each of the 50 individual states exempt holders of valid Japanese licenses from taking state road and written tests (many do not).

The total number of people applying for Japanese licenses who already had U.S. state driver licenses in 2001 was 5,698. Of these, 4,821 were Japanese citizens returning from work, study or tourism travel in the United States, and only 879 were Americans or third country nationals. The first-time pass rate for Americans was slightly higher than the 35 percent pass rate for Japanese returnees, but not much. On the other hand, for those who take the regular test, they have to go through an intensive (and expensive) driver education program. The first time pass rate for this group, even with the harder test, is 90 to 100 percent.

Converting to a Japanese License

For Americans resident in Japan, it is possible to convert a valid U.S. drivers license to a Japanese license. This cannot be done at the Embassy. The required translation of your U.S. license also cannot be done at the Embassy.

Follow these links for information on converting your license, including sources to help with the translation of your U.S. license. Please note that these links are to for-profit private organizations, and are provided here for your information only. Inclusion of Non-U.S. Government links or information does not imply endorsement of contents.

Follow this link for the locations of license bureaus in the Tokyo area.

Driving in Japan

Driving in Japan can be quite complicated and expensive. Those who cannot read the language will have trouble understanding road signs. Highway tolls are assessed at about US $1 per mile. City traffic is often very congested. A 20-mile trip in the Tokyo area may take two hours. There is virtually no roadside parking. In mountainous areas, roads are often closed during the winter, and cars should be equipped with tire chains.

Roads in Japan are much narrower than those in the United States. Vehicular traffic moves on the left. Turns at red lights are forbidden unless specifically authorized.

Japanese compulsory insurance is mandatory for all automobile owners and drivers in Japan. Your U.S. auto insurance likely does not provide coverage in Japan; check with your insurer.

Accidents and Liability

Japanese law provides that all persons who drive in Japan are held liable in the event of an accident, and assesses fault in an accident on all parties. The police may determine, for example, that a given accident was 80% the fault of Driver A, and 20% the fault of Driver B. Fines, penalties and the like would then be split the same way, i.e., 80-20.

Drivers stopped for driving under the influence of drugs or alchohol will have their licenses confiscated. Persons found guilty of "drunken, speeding or blatantly careless driving that results in death" subject to up to 15 years in prison, tripling the previous maximum sentence. Japanese police are also permitted to contact financial institutions directly to determine an offenders financial status to combat evasion of payment for traffic violations.

The National Police Agency (NPA) oversees the administration and enforcement of traffic laws. Further information in English is available on the NPA's web site.

Emergency Assistance

Within Japan, please dial 110 for police, and 119 for ambulance.

For roadside assistance, please contact the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) at 03-5395-0111 in Tokyo, 06-577-0111 in Osaka, 011-857-8139 in Sapporo, 092-841-5000 in Fukuoka, or 098-877-9163 in Okinawa. Service is usually only available in Japanese.

Here is some information on how to call for help.


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